Prosecutor to form child fatality review team

GREENFIELD — Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton is assembling a group of county leaders to establish a child fatality review team, whose members will work to better understand a child’s death, prosecute anyone responsible for the death and raise awareness to prevent further deaths from happening.

The team evaluates the death of any person younger than 18 that is considered unnatural. Members review medical records, autopsy reports and any police or Indiana Department of Child Services reports involving the deceased child to fully grasp what caused the death and determine the proper response.

For years, prosecutors were not required to play a part in death investigations if it was not immediately apparent a crime was committed, meaning the office was not always given a chance to look at the death from a legal perspective, Eaton said. 

A state law mandating child fatality review teams in each county went into effect in July 2013. The law gives prosecutors a chance to investigate child deaths that have been ruled a homicide, suicide or accident, and the child fatality review team will determine what legal action is taken if the death is a result of criminal wrongdoing, Eaton said. 

Each team is made up of representatives from law enforcement, the health department and the local prosecutor’s, coroner’s and DCS offices. It will include a pathologist or forensic expert. Additional health and safety officials, along with representatives from local schools, may be involved as the county deems necessary, according to the law.

The team will take the lead in prevention and education efforts aimed at keeping children safe. For Hancock County Chief Deputy Coroner Rudy Nylund, who has been enlisted as the coroner’s office representative to the review team, that’s the group’s most important role.   

“Any time a child death occurs, it’s a tragedy in and of itself,” Nylund said. “This group will help prevent those things from happening in the future.”

The prosecutor in each county is responsible for creating its area’s child fatality review team, but the group falls under the umbrella of the Indiana State Department of Health, spokesman Ken Severson said.

Two types of review teams exist, Severson said: Each county can create its own team, or several counties can partner together to form a regional team.

Hancock County hasn’t officially had a child fatality review team until now, Eaton said. The local group will be led by Deputy Prosecutor John Keiffner. 

Although child fatalities are not common in Hancock County, Eaton said the team would have played a role in the two most recent cases: the death of 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner, who was found dead in her Greenfield home in May with injuries consistent with physical abuse, according to court records; and the death of 3-month-old Dylan Luker, who three years ago was found dead in his crib where he’d been left unattended for 11 hours with an adult-sized body pillow.

In both of those cases, the child’s parents were looked at as key suspects in the death. Zoey’s parents, Jessica and Matthew Wagoner, are being held in the Hancock County Jail on charges of murder and neglect of a dependent causing death. Dylan’s parents, Mark Barron and Miranda Luker, pleaded guilty to felony charges early this year.

The team will have the added responsibility of investigating deaths ruled accidents, such as drug overdoses, motor vehicle crashes and drownings. The child fatality review team will bring together key professionals who can lend insight on evidence and information to be sure the proper people are held responsible, Eaton said.

Hancock County’s fatality review team will work closely with the county’s child protection team, a facet of the Department of Child Services that reviews cases involving child abuse or neglect. Members of these groups often overlap, meaning what is learned in one group will be applied in the other, leading to more effective preventive efforts, Eaton said. 

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.